2007 GSA Denver Annual Meeting (28–31 October 2007)

Paper No. 2
Presentation Time: 8:35 AM


NEWCOMB, Sally, retired, 13120 Two Farm Drive, Silver Spring, MD MD 20904, senewcomb@earthlink.net

A modest revision of thinking about the influence of Richard Kirwan has begun. He was cited mainly for his supposed irrational objection to Hutton's geological theory, but now there is more recognition of his real contributions to both geology and chemistry, despite his "incorrect" views about Hutton and/or phlogiston. In fact, he was not a minor, insular player. Political and religious factors in Ireland had led to his education on the Continent. He later spent periods in London, where he was in contact with, and highly respected by, the premier scientists of his time.

Kirwan was born at Cloughballymore, after which the family removed to Cregg castle. He was a precocious child, gifted in languages. Raised as a Catholic, Irish universities were forbidden to him, so he followed his older brother to France. On his brother's death he inherited the family estates and returned to Ireland. After marriage he studied law in London, the later practice of which in Ireland necessitated his renouncing Catholicism. He gave up law after two years. He and his daughters then lived for a time in London, and again in Ireland before he removed to London for a decade. During that time he acquired a fine library and studied the natural sciences. His intense work in chemistry and mineralogy, as well as his interaction with virtually all of the major scientists of the day in person or in correspondence, resulted in his admission to the Royal Society. In 1780 he was given the Copley medal for his papers on chemical affinities. He read and corresponded in a number of languages, and taught himself Greek.

On his final return to Ireland he helped found the Royal Irish Academy, and became its president from 1799 until his death. His Essay on Phlogiston summarized the work of many prominent chemists, but he later understood Lavoisier's reasoning about it. During this time he continued his acclaimed work in mineralogy and began extensive geological observations. The former informed the latter, and he opposed Hutton's thesis on the basis of objective knowledge of mineral behavior. His influential Geological Essays followed.